Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Perhaps I too easily take to heart the coffee cup “de-motivator” I have about blogging: “Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.”  As a delinquent blogger, this saying makes me laugh.  But it also makes me hesitate.

That’s not the only reason I’ve been silent on this blog.  When I don’t know my own mind on some topic about which I feel deep importance, I hunker down for awhile, feeling that I have nothing to say.  This is the case with a topic that has become high profile on college campuses – the interest in spirituality.

Many people who work with college students (especially on the Student Affairs side) know about the extensive research from the Higher Education Research at UCLA (to name only one source) on this subject.  Even though students fiercely protect their prerogatives, they are not the free-thinking skeptics people often associate with higher education.  In fact, they are very interested in questions that we have come to associate with spirituality or faith.  If you pay attention to the literature that has become mainstream, however, students are not all that interested in getting boxed in by “organized religion.”

It’s no wonder.  We’ve been teaching young people to think this way about religion and spirituality for at least a generation.  No time for a long foray into history, but consider: thirty years ago Paul Vitz did a study of the references to religion in elementary school social science textbooks.  He concluded that, given how these references were handled, students would easily conclude that religious practice is either something that “primitive” people do in other parts of the world or (for this country, especially) it is something people did in the past.  Here, insert the Puritans.  You know how they fare in popular sentiment.

Add in the public-private constitutional divide long-established in our society.  Religion is “private,” something that people are free to do with their associates without government interference.  But religious faith must stay in the private realm, which allows it to deal with personal values of all sorts, but does not allow people to be part of public debates (even though religion is always very much in the news).  There are important questions involved, here, but the big thing is that we don’t want anyone “imposing” some brand of religion on us.  The result has been that another vision has been “imposed.”  And it’s not a neutral one.

So, in a thousand subtle ways we have taught kids – long before they get to college – that religion is not all that important except for personal values and, furthermore, it may actually be rather dangerous (especially conservative evangelical versions of Christianity).  Churches have gone along with this process.  Here I refer to the “moralistic therapeutic deism” discerned by Christian Smith and others among teenagers and emerging adults.  Religion is for the purpose of helping people be nice and feel good about themselves.

Yet people hunger for transcendence, for contact with the Lifeforce or whatever word you’d like to use if you want to avoid using God.  If religion is more or less ruled out of bounds, what do you have left?  Spirituality.  And it will inevitably look and sound like how people talk in the literature.  Spirituality is about contact with the transcendent, and authenticity, and compassion, and expansiveness and…

I’m not surprised that the social scientists asking college students what they think about spirituality and religion are discovering the “spiritual not religious” response.  We pretty much taught them to think this way.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

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